‘Bad apples’ vs overarching conspiracy

Published in Issue 6 (November/December 2017), Platform, Troubles in Northern Ireland, Volume 25

British state collusion with paramilitaries in Ireland.

By Michael Finucane

‘If we open a quarrel between the past and the present we shall find that we have lost the future.’
(Winston Churchill, 18 June 1940)

There is no greater quarrel between the past and the present when it comes to the challenges facing the future-makers of Northern Ireland. Historical events are no less immune from partisanship than modern political opinions, despite the best efforts of those examining the past to remain neutral. Even the use of the phrase ‘Northern Ireland’ is taken as a declaration for one side over another, as the seemingly never-ending list of debates grinds on.

Nowhere was this better exemplified than in the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, presided over by Lord Saville of Newdigate, which proved to be the longest-running public inquiry in British legal history. The extent and depth of analysis of the available evidence was unprecedented and, depending on which source of information you believe, the final bill varies between £195m and £400m. The many inaccuracies of the previous inquiry, the Widgery Tribunal of 1972, required—if not demanded—a thorough review, at least, if not a complete overhaul. It would always prove to be a time-consuming and expensive exercise to return to an event a quarter-century in the past, never mind a public demonstration involving thousands of participants, and so the time spent and the costs involved were inevitable, but this cut little ice with opponents. The factual record having been set straight, critics of the inquiry latched onto the profligacy of the enterprise in an effort to discredit the conclusions.

Attacking the accuracy of the official record by other means is not novel or unique to the past events of the Northern Ireland conflict. An international survey of 102 countries by the New York-based Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported disquieting findings towards the Holocaust as recently as 2015. Only 54% of adults globally had heard of the Holocaust; 32% believed that it was a myth or had been greatly exaggerated. It is a sobering thought that the wealth of evidence amassed and displayed worldwide about the systematic murder of six million people is not enough to convince some that it had even occurred at all. The ADL survey offers no definitive explanation for the statistics but it seems reasonable to conclude that constant modulating and downplaying of the Holocaust has had a significant effect on attitudes towards the facts. It would also appear to be reasonable to conclude that anti-Semitic bias played a significant role, particularly outside Europe and especially in the Middle East.

If historians are to overcome the problem of historical denial and rejection of evidence, it must surely be by returning to first principles: authenticity and reliability. In this regard, one can only hope that the issue of collusion between the British state and paramilitary organisations throughout the Northern Ireland conflict can be rescued and preserved intact, such is the extent to which analysts can increasingly rely on British archive materials and official records. The refusal to accept the existence of collusion between Britain and paramilitary organisations during the conflict is often little more than stubbornness driven by prejudice. The sense of allegiance to and identification with Britain for some prevents any acknowledgement of collusion because it is a concept that is essentially being proposed by ‘the other side’. Although there is evidence of collusion between Britain and members of Republican paramilitary organisations, most of the high-profile cases of collusion have involved Loyalist paramilitaries being infiltrated and controlled by MI5, the British Army, the RUC, and sometimes all three at the same time. The most outspoken proponents of redress on behalf of persons affected by this are decried as anti-establishment, by which is meant anti-Britain and/or the British government. The more evidence that is revealed, the more the naysayers dispute its authenticity. The irony in pro-establishment factions being forced to dispute records generated by the regime to which they would subscribe is, apparently, lost in the din of rejection. The fact that credible organisations from around the globe have investigated the allegations of collusion and found them reliable is merely further evidence of a conspiracy to besmirch the name of Britain in pursuit of a pro-Nationalist agenda.

Documentary proof from within state archives shows, at the very least, that allegations of unlawful conspiracy between elements of the British state and Loyalist paramilitary organisations are verifiable. Recent works, such as Lethal allies: British collusion in Ireland, published in 2013 by the former journalist Anne Cadwallader, and A state in denial: British collaboration with Loyalist paramilitaries (reviewed in HI 25.2, March/April 2017, pp 58–9) by the former Justice for the Forgotten campaigner Margaret Urwin, demonstrate that a forensic narrative of collusion is possible because they are based to a great extent on records emanating from within the official Northern Ireland and British archives. Indeed, Anne Cadwallader was able to dovetail her research with documentary evidence from the Historical Enquiries Team (HET), a unit set up by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) in September 2005 to investigate unsolved murders committed during the conflict.

Above: In the case of Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane, murdered by the UDA in February 1989, former head of the London Metropolitan Police John Stevens concluded that ‘there was collusion … evidenced in many ways. This ranges from the wilful failure to keep records, the absence of accountability, the withholding of intelligence and evidence, through to the extreme of agents being involved in murder.’

When the case of murdered Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane was investigated by the former head of the London Metropolitan Police, John Stevens, between 1999 and 2003, the conclusions reached and publicised were unequivocal. Stevens summed them up as follows:

‘I conclude there was collusion … evidenced in many ways. This ranges from the wilful failure to keep records, the absence of accountability, the withholding of intelligence and evidence, through to the extreme of agents being involved in murder. The failure to keep records or the existence of contradictory accounts can often be perceived as evidence of concealment or malpractice … The absence of accountability allows the acts or omissions of individuals to go undetected. The withholding of information impedes the prevention of crime and the arrest of suspects. The unlawful involvement of agents in murder implies that the security forces sanction killings … My three Enquiries have found all these elements of collusion to be present.’

The work carried out by the Stevens investigation echoed that of others and would also form the basis for subsequent probes. Highly credible human rights NGOs, some with an international presence, investigated collusion and arrived at much the same conclusion. In the decade that preceded the announcement by John Stevens, allegations of collusion had been substantiated by the US-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (now Human Rights First), Amnesty International (UK), Helsinki Watch, British Irish Rights Watch (now Rights Watch UK) and a Belfast NGO, the Committee for the Administration of Justice. In 2004 the British government-appointed investigator Peter Cory, a former Canadian supreme court judge, reported on several cases that alleged collusion or collusive acts on the part of the police or British Army. His remit did not extend to the drawing of conclusions but was rather to recommend public inquiries where the evidence merited them. He concluded by recommending five such inquiries in cases where he examined the available evidence, which constituted unprecedented access to records kept by the British Army, MI5 and the RUC. Again, in the case of Pat Finucane, he concluded:

‘[T]he documents and statements I have referred to in this review have a cumulative effect. Considered together, they clearly indicate to me that there is strong evidence that collusive acts were committed by the Army (FRU), the RUC SB [Special Branch] and the Security Service [MI5]. I am satisfied that there is a need for a public inquiry.’

Given the consistency of the conclusions reached by all who have investigated this issue over the years, one would have thought that the existence of collusion would be beyond debate. These conclusions, however, have been diluted somewhat by the findings of yet another British appointee, Sir Desmond de Silva QC, who published his final report in 2012. The conclusions reached by de Silva were not so unequivocal. Although he described the collusion that had existed as ‘shocking’, he also found that there was ‘no overarching state conspiracy’, which diluted the impact of his investigation quite considerably.

This is where the historian must take heed, for while official records are undeniable, their meaning—and consequently their significance—can be manipulated. If one returns to first principles when examining the source material, it must be with the intention of verification first but afterwards to go where the evidence leads. The need for detachment in terms of authenticity must be coupled with a duty to uncover the whole of the truth. It may well be that the existence of collusion cannot be denied any more, but the meaning of the evidence supporting its existence can be clouded by insipid conclusions. In many ways, these can do more damage than just flat rejection. The existence of the Jewish Holocaust cannot be denied but its reality can be dismissed as exaggeration or myth, if there are sufficient numbers willing to do so and they are not confronted by and reminded of the stark evidence. Collusion could suffer the same fate, if more palatable descriptions than ‘involvement in murder’, as per Stevens, are announced and absorbed often enough.

Michael Finucane is a practising solicitor based in Dublin. He is the eldest son of the late Pat Finucane, a Belfast solicitor murdered in 1989 by Loyalist paramilitaries. His family’s campaign for a public inquiry into allegations of collusion in the murder is due to reach the UK Supreme Court in the next twelve months.


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